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I am going to preface this question with the fact that yes, I am well aware they are separate AC calculations that you choose between. I am simply posing a theoretical question that warrants deeper thought.

With that being said, while I was reviewing the Sorcerer class features in preparation for a session today, I had a thought: Lizardfolk's Natural Armor is equal to 13 + Dex. mod because of their naturally thick hide. Barbarian's Unarmored Defense is equal to 10 + Dex. + Con. mods because of their (courage or pure anger)1.

In my mind, allowing a Lizardfolk Barbarian to have their AC be equal to 13 + Dex. + Con. (+ shield) makes complete sense, as it's not like the Monk's Unarmored Defense where the Wis. mod is for them being more (studied in finesse and knowing where to be to dodge an attack)1.

What would be the impact if I ruled that the Lizardfolk's Natural Armor stacked with Barbarian's Unarmored Defense?


1Someone replace these parts in parentheses with the actual lore reason, I can't figure it out. Also delete this footnote once no longer relevant!

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Worth mentioning with their inherent con bonus lizardfolk barbarians already get an effectively +1 to AC. \$\endgroup\$
    – John
    Mar 11 at 22:07

5 Answers 5

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This would be unbalancing

Let us look at the numerical impact first. The simple and obvious answer is that your AC will be 3 higher at any possible level than what it otherwise could be.

As aptly demonstrated in this answer, an increase of even +2 to AC is much more impactful than what it might look like superficially, and especially with higher ACs where the to hit chances for the monsters become smaller, it can mean as much as 200% better survivability. 3 points obviously would have an even larger impact.

So you can expect that the impact on game experience will be that your Barbarian will be very hard to hit. On level one, even with point buy, at 21 AC a normal opponent will hit you less than 20% of the time.

What is the downside for this boost in power? I do not really see anything, and do not think this would be a balanced change. If you like to use Detect Balance, a free +3 to AC would be worth 24 points, essentially the entire contingent for making a race; here you get that on top of a race that was balanced before that change, making it nearly twice as powerful as any other race.

In my experience, in the long run, extremely high ACs also make the game less exciting, not more so - things become predictable. They also make it challenging for the DM. We do have a character in our campaign that is optimized for AC and can easily get to AC 27 if they want to, often also imposing disadvantage. This puts the DM in a difficult situation: most attacks on that character are just wasted, so should they still have the monsters try and hit that character, or entirely focus on the other characters they can actually hit? Smart monsters might do the latter, or depending on the kind of DM you have, all monsters might, which sucks both for the player who put all that investment in their AC only to be ignored, and for the other players who constantly get attacked.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is a really important take. Players as a rule grossly underestimate the value added by even a single point to AC. \$\endgroup\$ Dec 15, 2022 at 20:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 to the post and to Thomas' comment. As a GM I have a character with 21 AC normally, 26 AC with shield spell. It is a big hassle. Monsters that threaten that character will shred the rest of the party. Keeping encounters challenging for everyone is really difficult. As GM, you should be doing all you can to reduce AC, not raise it. \$\endgroup\$ Dec 15, 2022 at 20:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ @user2754 I also think barbarians need all the help they can get, they are a really MAD class, far more than most. \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Dec 16, 2022 at 11:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SeriousBri: They can just wear armor (and optionally a shield) to get a decent AC, but dex and con are really good stats for other reasons, too. (e.g. high initiative to rage before getting hit helps a lot). So yeah, still pretty MAD, especially if you want to really be tanky as well as a good damage-dealer, needing high Con and Str. Why are barbarians so MAD? Well the class is built around rage. :P \$\endgroup\$ Dec 16, 2022 at 16:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ The thing is, unless you work hard to optimize for it, Unarmored Defense is pretty seriously second-rate. If you have +3 Dex and +3 Con (difficult when you're also trying to maximize Str), your unarmed defense would be AC 16, which is equivalent to a breastplate with the same stats. With +2 Dex or +2 Con (or both), the breastplate is superior. Adding +3 to Unarmored Defense does possibly push into the heavy-armor range, but I don't see how it would actually be broken -- mostly it just makes "I don't wear armor" a viable option. \$\endgroup\$ Dec 19, 2022 at 18:01
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The Unarmored Defense is compensation for not being able to, or not wanting to, equip magic armor

Normally, as a character advances, they'll get access to +1, +2, or even +3 armor. So instead of those bonuses, barbarians and monks can use a second ability score to increase protection. By removing the restriction, you're adding a third source of increasing AC.

Put another way, most character's AC is based on two factors (not including shields); armor + Dexterity. You're now allowing a third; natural armor + Dexterity + Constitution (or Wisdom for monks).

You will likely break Bounded Accuracy

5e rules have the concept of "bounded accuracy." Basically, it tries to limit bonuses and values within a finite scope of possibilities.

Lizardfolk barbarian

So if we assume 18 for both Dexterity and Constitution, that would give a 1st level barbarian an AC of 13 + 4 (Dex) + 4 (Con) + 2 (shield) = AC 23. And at 1st-level, that is extremely hard to overcome.

But can you really just stop at lizardfolk?

The rationale given is that the lizardfolk don't lose their leathery hide, so the bonuses should stack. But what about the tortle?

Natural Armor. Your shell provides you a base AC of 17 (your Dexterity modifier doesn’t affect this number). You can’t wear light, medium, or heavy armor, but if you are using a shield, you can apply the shield’s bonus as normal.

The tortle's shell doesn't become weaker by being a barbarian, so why shouldn't they also stack? It will be slightly different as the rule explicitly says no Dexterity bonus, but with a starting AC of 17, that's not a problem. AC 17 + 4 (Con) + 2 (shield) = AC 23, just like the lizardfolk.

I'm sure there are other examples of "what's good for one race should be applied to all races" that can inflate a lot of low level AC.

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    \$\begingroup\$ compensation for not being able to equip magic armor - Huh? That's true for monks, whose class features mostly don't work in armor. But Barbarian class features all work perfectly fine with medium armor + shield. Not heavy armor, though, that's crippling (rage doesn't give any benefits, and fast movement doesn't work). Unarmored Defense is just an alternative that can get your AC higher than if you have good stats, and/or if you want to play that fantasy archetype. \$\endgroup\$ Dec 16, 2022 at 9:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ @PeterCordes, You are correct. I reworded the headline so it's now a choice; those who cannot and those that choose not to. \$\endgroup\$
    – MivaScott
    Dec 16, 2022 at 17:54
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What would be the impact if I ruled that the Lizardfolk's Natural Armor stacked with Barbarian's Unarmored Defense?

It would make Lizardfolk Barbarian an exceptionally strong combination, compared to other similar choices for Barbarian race. In the 5E design of bounded accuracy, a +3 passive increase to AC is a huge deal.

A player character who took this option and tried to optimise their barbarian for max AC might cause headaches for a DM, where the barbarian character could handle threats that the rest of the team were not a match for, all else being equal.

It is unlikely to break the game as a single change, the barbarian can still be hit by monsters, especially in higher level play. And they may outshine their colleagues in battle more often, but it probably won't be 100% of the time. However, I cannot think of a good reason to allow it.

If the player's concern is that they have lost out on benefits because they double up conceptually, but don't stack and provide any improvemnt, then potentially you could allow a boon or feat to grant a smaller increase for the stacking. E.g. perhaps a Feat that required natural armour and granted a flat +1 to AC, regardless of whether that natural armour was being used in the current AC calculation.

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It would cause a lot of barbarian players to choose Lizardfolk as their race and invest in Dexterity.

This is flatly inferior to wearing Medium armour with 14 dex and the racial benefits given by a feat or flying, especially given that barbarians generally require melee range for enemies (including flying enemies) to be most effective and the Great Weapon Master feat is largely mandatory for them in any optimizational sense.

Theoretically at higher levels it would be better, as you'd have more spare ASI for dex, but magic medium armour is largely assumed at those levels. If you roll for stats or use a different method that results in much higher starting ability scores, it is superior to medium armour but still only arguably better than having Great Weapon Master from the get go for campaigns starting below level 4.

It would make Going Naked more viable for specifically lizardfolk barbarians. Not for other barbarians. So it doesn't make a cool fluff option better for the vast majority of races, which is bad, because shoehorning people into specific races is bad.

From my anecdotal experience of D&D 5e, people would also feel the change was powerful (or overpowered) and might prioritize taking it without actually doing the math. There is a strong expectation that any change to the game will 'break' it, without any real understanding of what that means. Ergo some players might feel this makes the game worse regardless of any actual mathematical change in how the game plays.

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From my current understanding of hyper-optimization, rolling for stats is optimal.

Let's assume two 18's in Dex. and Con. for simplicity's sake. Lizardfolk get +2 to Constitution and +1 to Wisdom, but I'll use Tasha's rules and move that Wisdom bonus to Dexterity, not as if it matters anyways, as 19 does not provide a higher bonus at Level 1.

An AC of 13 + 4(Dex) + 5(Con) + 2(shield) comes out to 24 AC at Level 1, a very high number for a tier 1 character, and even higher than the theoretical max proposed by this question!

This is a ridiculous ruling, and should never be allowed. Now that I think about it, why the hell would anyone allow it?

At the very least, the idea is crazy and somewhat fun to think about.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Your statement about optimization isn't accurate—we could all assume we rolled 18s across the board for example because that's the most optimal but that's not how it works. Do we only need to consider hyper-optimization? More troublingly, your rant at voters is rather chilling on actually giving you feedback and has no place in an answer — “apologies for making a terrible answer” while calling downvoters annoying comment reads less like sincere interest in feedback & more like a guilt trip. Be less concerned with chasing scores, more concerned with giving good advice within your expertise. \$\endgroup\$ Dec 15, 2022 at 21:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ I pinged you in chat, since you were around at some point, but just in case, leaving a link here as well chat.stackexchange.com/transcript/message/62576982#62576982 :) \$\endgroup\$
    – Akixkisu
    Dec 15, 2022 at 22:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ I just want to supplement doppel's comment with Why is an answer being downvoted without any comments? from our FAQ. There's a lot places where this question jumps around a fair bit, first from a practice I assume is taken from theoretical extremus optimization which have limited applicability to balance considerations. The answer also seems exclaimant that adding +3 to a found AC makes it higher, which isn't quite the level expected of expert Q&A (admittedly a slightly nebulous term). \$\endgroup\$
    – Someone_Evil
    Dec 15, 2022 at 22:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ And finally you're calling your own idea ridiculous, which rather opens the question of why are you then asking this Q&A? The goal of the Stack is to provide good solutions to actual problems, and while we seem to be accepting the problem (ie. question) this answer seem to be catching the brunt of this posting not being so. If you're feeling a lack of constructive feedback there are mechanisms for seeking that (chat or even meta), but being broadly abrasive against voters after a single downvote is assuredly not the way to do that. \$\endgroup\$
    – Someone_Evil
    Dec 15, 2022 at 22:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ You originally proposed that allowing this "would make for an interesting game." I did not downvote but can hazard a guess that the first downvote, which was on that version, was due to someone disagreeing with that being a correct assessment of the situation. Then you reversed your conclusion to the current one, and in my experience, when you do not actually try to present an answer you believe in, but one that you hope will get upvoted, this also can lead to downvotes. (I personally think changing an answer upon reflection is OK, correcting a mistake it is not a bad thing). \$\endgroup\$ Dec 16, 2022 at 11:59

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